Thursday, May 30, 2013

Modesty, the Bikini, & Lust, Oh My!

My Facebook and Twitter feeds blew up today on the topic of modesty, and I found myself in a few different conversations about it, both public and private.  I decided that since I'd made so many comments, I might as well compile them and turn them into a blog post.  What I'm saying here is probably nothing new, and has probably been said before, just not by me.  I've edited and changed things around from how they initially appeared in order to make more sense of them, have them fit together as a whole, and protect various identities.

I mentioned modesty in a talk I gave last fall at a conference about Christianity and pop culture.  One section was entirely on modesty.  In it, I said, 

Women are often told to dress modestly in order that they don’t cause their Christian brothers to sin by causing them to lust after the women.  Men are not warned in the same way and this is often because women’s bodies are portrayed as more sexual in nature.  However, there is a broad range of what modesty may mean, and so the admonition to “be modest” is generally unhelpful.  In Rachel Held Evans’ newly released book, A Year of Biblical Womanhood, she spends one month exploring what it means to be modest from a Biblical perspective, and realizes that “women from a variety of religious groups claim biblical modesty as their standard of dress, and yet none of them dress exactly the same” (123-124).   Modesty often tends to be about being covered up, but if that were the case, then we should just all walk around in bathrobes.  I can’t think of anything more covered up than that. 

After the talk, during the Q&A session, one young woman asked about dressing modestly so as not to cause men to stumble.  My response to her was that there was no way she could possibly know what the approximately 700 men on campus would think about everything she had to wear and that she was not responsible for their thoughts.  What if she was wearing a tank top and had to change to a t-shirt, because a guy felt uncomfortable with the tank top? Then she had to change from a t-shirt to a long-sleeve shirt, because the next guy was uncomfortable with seeing her arms? Then to a bulky sweatshirt. Do you see the problem here?  She cannot be responsible for other people. It is not humbling to be told to change clothes for someone else, it is shaming.

But, now that summer is here, we are left debating whether or not wearing a bikini is something that we should do so as not to cause men to lust after us.

Women are not responsible for men's thoughts and actions.   If a woman wants to wear a bikini, by all means, wear a bikini. "Modesty" is arbitrary and it is not women who are responsible for a man's lust, but the man.  I had a male friend say one time that sometimes, it's actually the more covered up a woman is that can "cause" lust, because it leaves more to the imagination.  Men need to be responsible for men. A woman cannot go through life making choices based on what every man (or woman) out there might think.  I'm a mother of boys, and I plan on teaching them what women wear doesn't excuse their actions and thoughts. I'm not going to give them a pass based on what women wear. 

If we assume *all men* will lust after us, we are looking down on them and treating them as no better than an animal. Also, while we can consider our actions/choices influencing others around us, that could be in regards to *anything*. We also can't make that our primary focus, because we will then be living our lives and making our decisions for those around us, and that's impossible to do. What we wear should be between us and God and our choices should come from our relationship with God and how we want to present ourselves, not because of what others might think.

A friend commented to me that "It's so subjective that it's easy to turn it into what ever the current group of men happen to think is modesty. Not that I'm blaming all men for this, but some of them put themselves in the victim slot, thinking they are being persecuted by immodest women, instead of realizing that their sin is theirs alone to deal with. Making a women who is causing you to stumble change her clothes is like putting a bandage over a freshly amputated stump."

If we tailor our actions so as to not cause someone to stumble, and if it is ok for men to ask women to dress differently, can we women do the same thing?  

Can a woman tell a man that he really needs to wear long sleeved shirts, because she likes how his biceps look in the short sleeved ones?   Many women will find shirtless men at the beach attractive. Can we tell them they need to wear t-shirts with their swimming trunks?   Can we tell them they can't wear speedos?  Or can I tell someone that their designer clothes or purse make me jealous that I don't have them, so they need to not wear them around me?  Should I tell the lead praise singer that her beautiful voice causes me to feel badly about my own voice that doesn't carry a tune, so she should stop singing around me?  Should I tell my friend who always has perfectly done hair that it makes me feel bad that I can't do my own hair well, so she should wear it messy around me?  What if the male pastor at church is attractive?  Should I tell him he really needs to stop doing the sermons every week because I find his looks distracting?

I cannot and should not expect that other people will conform their actions to how they make me feel.  How I feel and how I react to whatever I encounter is on me.  

I have read way too many stories of women who have terribly negative body image because of this very thing, and so, we really must ask ourselves, why can we not look past "modesty" or "immodesty" to the person inside? 

I think I'll go bikini shopping now.  

Some other good articles to read on this topic are:

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

What Kind of Humor Is Good?

A while ago, Rachel Held Evans wrote a post about the use of humor/satire by Christians.     It was well-written, and her four points were that humor works best when 
  • it is directed at oneself
  • it is directed at one's own community and culture
  • it is directed toward the powerful
  • it tears down idols
Because I hadn't given much thought to when or how humor works best before this, I appreciated the reflection.  Something that was not covered, however, and that I commented on, was this:

I think the worst "humor" is when I have seen it directed at people who have no idea they are being made fun of and who cannot respond. I think we all need to be careful what we write, say, tweet when we think we are funny. Sometimes, we get angry at others who write offensive things when we don't even realize we might be doing it ourselves (humorous or not). We need to pay attention as to whether or not what we are doing is mean-spirited. There are people or organizations I gave up following (or contemplate unfollowing a lot) because while I did see the humor in what they were saying about the culture or topic as a whole, it was done in such a way as to denigrate individuals within that culture or topic. Does that makes sense?

Sometimes, even if humor can work because it is directed towards one's own community, the powerful, and is working to tear down idols, it is just plain mean.  And that is something that I simply can't understand or support.  

I've been reading Galatians over and over again this month and have been thinking deeply about Christian freedom as well as the fruits of the spirit.

By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness,  gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. (Galatians 5:22-23)

I think that humor can be done as fruit of the spirit, if it is done the right way.  But the humor that I have been disappointed in lately has had no markings of the fruit of the spirit.  It has served not to tear down idols, but to tear down people.  It has been directed towards individuals, not systems of power.  It is semi-directed toward one's own community and culture, but more so toward a community and culture of which one may not want to be a part.  

As I have thought about the humor I've seen in the last few months, I am reminded of Paul's words in 1 Corinthians 10:23.  Even though he is talking about what is or is not lawful or beneficial to eat, I think it also applies to the topic of Christian humor.  He says that "All things are lawful," but not all things are beneficial. "All things are lawful," but not all things build up.

So what is the correct use of, and response to humor, for the Christian?  What are your thoughts?

Monday, May 27, 2013

Christ Died to Set Us Free

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to set us free from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be the glory forever and ever.  Amen.  (Galatians 1:3-5).

I have a difficult time when I go to church around a patriotic holiday.    Flags decorate the sanctuary.  It is our country's patriotic holidays when we knowingly or not, assert our belief that we are the best.  Oftentimes, the holiday takes precedence over Jesus, or, is so entwined with Christianity that it is difficult to separate them.  I remember one 4th of July, when everyone was handed a little US flag to wave.  Stamped on it were the words "made in China".  I usually sit quietly in services like those, uncomfortable with how we have combined our military and nationalism with our faith.  I look at a banner like this and wonder what exactly is the focus of our worship.  And I ask myself questions.  
What does the word "pray" on this banner mean, anyway?  What about mourning those who were violently kicked out of this land, who were killed?  Who are the Sioux that we recall every time we say the name of our town or county?  Who are they today?  Where are they today?  How would they feel coming into a sanctuary filled with this flag, and one combined with the cross?  How would a Christian visiting from elsewhere feel?  How would I feel if I was visiting another country that was celebrating its military in a church sanctuary, a worship service?

We should remember those who have died.  We should be thankful for our freedom.  But at the same time, we can, and should, question to whom our primary allegiance lies, and we should always assess whether or not we are following the way of Jesus.  

In the book The Good and Beautiful Community, James Bryan Smith relates a story about William Penn and George Fox, both Quakers.  Fox was the founder of the movement and Penn became a Quaker at age 23.  

It was common in Penn's day to wear a sword, which was not intended to harm anyone but was a sign that the wearer belonged to the upper class.  After becoming a Quaker, Penn struggled with whether he should wear the sword.  After all, it was a symbol of war as well as class distinction--two things Quakers stood squarely against.  

So Penn went to Fox, his mentor, to seek guidance on the matter.  'May I continue to wear the sword?' he asked Fox.  I would have expected Fox to say, 'No, you must get rid of it.  Turn it into a plowshare and never wear anything like it again.'  Instead, George Fox offered a response that is a touchstone for me in the area of Christian living.  He said, 'Wear it as long as you can, William, wear it as long as you can.'  (page 35).

In church yesterday we sang thesesongs:
And we heard about the Holy Spirit in Acts 2. We heard about people from all nations being in Jerusalem and hearing the gift of tongues poured out from the Holy Spirit, at Pentecost.  We have an image of that barrier of language torn down, a reversal of the tower of Babel.  Our focus was turned from our national holiday that is only about us to a day when people of all nations were together, united in the Spirit of Christ.   

And we have drifted so far from that day.

The first few hundred years of Christianity were marked by pacifism, yet, over time, we have come to identify primarily with our country of origin more so than Jesus' other-worldly kingdom.  We don't really trust God, despite what our currency says.  We instead place our trust in humankind and governments created by humankind.  

And so, I will look at that banner, and I will pray.

I will pray that we will learn the way of Jesus.

I will pray that we will see a time when "nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more." (Isaiah 2:4)

I will pray that we will seek the Spirit's leading so that we will produce the fruit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23).

I will pray that we will recognize that there is one Lord, one faith, one baptism (Ephesians 4:5) and that distinctions based on gender or nationality do not exist in Christ (Galatians 3:28).  

I will pray that we will love our enemies, pray for our persecutors, bless them, and not repay evil for evil.   (Matthew 5:44; Romans 12:16-17).

I will pray that the Spirit will move like a wind among us, encouraging us, teaching us, and capturing our hearts so that there is no doubt to whom we belong.  That we will see not only glimpses here and there of the kingdom of heaven but that they would be more regular, more powerful, and more beautiful than we can even imagine.  That we will fight evil with love, that our hearts will break for what breaks God's heart, that all Christ-followers will let the Spirit move in their hearts and minds and souls and bring them life.

I will pray that we will come to a time when we no longer have to remember the deaths of so many, but instead, will celebrate life and resurrection of all, when we see "a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands." (Revelation 7:9)

I will pray for those in Christ to seek him, and to follow him, no matter the cost.  

I will pray for the freedom that we can only find in Christ.  

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Love the Lord Your God With All Your Mind

This is the fourth in a series about the commandments to love.   The others are:
Love God With All Your Soul

When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together,  and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him.   "Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?"   He said to him, "'You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.'   This is the greatest and first commandment.   And a second is like it: 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.'   On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets."  --Matthew 22:34-40  

I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another." --John 13:34-35

This is the post I really wanted to write from when I envisioned the series.  Initially, I only wanted to write this post, but then thought I really shouldn't leave out the other ways in which we are to love, because then I'd just be picking my favorite and ignoring the rest, and they all really do go together.  

Sometimes, people are derisive towards others who tend to lean towards studying and philosophy.  I've heard multiple times that seminary isn't really that important (usually from people who already have a seminary degree and wouldn't have their job as a pastor without it), or that the Bible is easy to read and that academics make it more difficult than it is, or that academically-oriented people have only "head knowledge" but no "heart knowledge".  

But what about if you have no head knowledge?  In "When Bible Study Isn't Bible Study"  I wrote that if we are not careful to learn, we can get things wrong.  I think there is often a paradox because many Christians insist on the importance of Bible reading and knowing the Bible, but then dismiss the idea that head knowledge can be good.   Why is this?  It's confusing, because when we listen to a sermon, we expect that the pastor has done her homework and knows what she's talking about (one problem I wonder about though, is how does a congregation expect their pastor to educate them through sermons if the pastor doesn't take studying seriously?  Do they think that the knowledge is just imparted to the pastor by God as the sermon is prepared?).  We expect when we read a book or use a small group curriculum, that the author has head knowledge and is passing that on to us.  

And yet, when I have expressed interest in certain topics or have wanted to explore something further, I have, at times, heard comments such as "not everyone is as interested in that as you are".  Or when someone told me about finishing reading through the gospel of Matthew, and I asked what questions came up.  The answer was "none."  None?  No questions?  Really?  To this person, it was very straightforward, and I just can't really wrap my brain around that, because I always have questions.  I wonder when Jesus says he hasn't come to abolish the law or the prophets, "what about the writings?  Why did he just say two parts of the Tanakh?"  Or I wonder why it's so easy for us to give grace to divorced people in the church, even though Jesus is pretty strict about it (Matthew 5:31-32),  but so hard to give grace to GLBT people.  I wonder why it's rare for me to learn so much of the Jewish background in church; I have learned it from Jewish friends and books.  I wonder why we are insistent that there is nobody righteous, yet Joseph is described as a righteous man (Mt 1:19).  I wonder why Jesus warns people to pray that their flight from Judea will not be in winter or on a sabbath (Mt 24:20).  I wonder.  I question.  And usually, I feel alone in doing it.  

When I was in seminary, the classes in which I did the best were "Philosophy of Christian Religion", "Method and Praxis of Theology", and "Kingdom, Church, and World" (Remember, I didn't finish, so that's why I'm only listing these classes.  Had I finished, I'd have more classes to reflect upon).  The classes I didn't do as well in were "Vocation of Ministry" and my "Old Testament Introduction" (that kills me, it really does, because I LOVE the Old Testament!).  I'm not going to talk about Greek and Hebrew.  

It's telling to me that I did well in the classes that were more academic in nature (except the OT class) than the ones that were more practical or applicable (although, "Kingdom, Church, and World" did encompass both, and it was my favorite one).  

I enjoy learning.

I enjoy thinking.

I enjoy using my brain.

And you know what?  I suspect that God made me this way.  

But it also tends to be a lonely place to be.  When it comes to actually studying the Bible and thinking deeply in a theological sense, I haven't really had many friends who enjoy it.

We don't act disdainfully like that with other things, do we?  We appreciate listening to a singer who can sing well over one that doesn't.  We might enjoy watching the "American Idol" tryouts, but we don't actually want any of the bad singers to win.  We want the best singer to win, the one that uses his or her voice in a way in which we can't even imagine possible for ourselves. We appreciate watching an athlete who has talent and who has practiced that talent.  We see the value in beautiful art over the stick figure scribblings of a child (though, that can be beautiful itself, for other reasons).   We appreciate a well-cooked steak by someone who knows how to cook over a hamburger from McDonald's.  Don't we?  If we can appreciate these talents, if we can acknowledge that we can use our bodies in these ways, why do we so often stop when it comes to using our minds to the best of our abilities?  Why should we place value on practicing a sport or an instrument to get better and not place value on practicing using our minds to make them better also?  We encourage people to use their vocal talents by joining the choir or praise band.  But do we encourage people to use their minds, too?  In many churches, most Sunday School classes and small groups are not led by "teachers" but, rather, by "facilitators".  The importance of developing relationships with others and application of the Bible to our own lives is stressed.  This is often because people feel intimidated by the Bible and we don't want them to feel as if they are dumb if they don't know the right answer, or we want to assure the facilitator that she doesn't have to know everything.  And, yes, relationships are important; a person who has a deep and meaningful relationship with God is probably the best person to teach others about that relationship.  But is the deep relationship the qualifier for teaching others how to use their minds, or what the Bible really means in an academic way?  If a person loves to sing but can't carry a tune, do we want that person to be in charge of the choir or praise band?

A few weeks ago during church we sang "The Power of Your Love" , and it made me smile when we came to these lyrics:

Lord renew my mind
As Your will unfolds in my life
In living every day
by the power of Your love.

I've loved Romans 12:2 for a long time, as is probably obvious to any reader here since that verse was the inspiration for naming my blog: "Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God-- what is good and acceptable and perfect."  We need to be able to use our minds in order to be transformed and discern God's will for us.  In the song lyrics, what is behind this renewal, is the power of God's love.  

And really, isn't that the power that should be behind everything we do?  

Let's stop assuming that the academics among us don't have any "heart knowledge".  Let's start assuming that, like anyone else, academically-oriented people love God just as anyone else does, and that all of us are works-in-progress.  We are all created in God's image, with gifts and talents and abilities and interests and passions given to us by God.  We are not all feet, not all hands, not all eyes, not all ears, but are the body, together, made up of our differences.  Some of us are not academically inclined, and that's ok.  Some of us are academically inclined, and that's ok too.  But we all still have minds to use, minds that God gave us, and it is through thankfulness to our Creator that we should use them, renew them, and love Him with them.  And in order to love God with our minds, we must use them.  We must practice with them.  We must stretch them and use them for learning.  We must love God with the mind that He gave us.  

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

When It Is Hard to Trust in God's Goodness

It's days like this when I find myself wondering in what my faith lies.

It's days like this, when the concept of a loving, sovereign God, a concept that is hugely important in the area where I currently live, doesn't make a lot of sense to me.

It's days like this, when I am faced with my own selfishness because I think "I'm glad it didn't happen here."


Many people will be writing, commenting, and tweeting about the Moore, OK tornado.  There's nothing about this post that may say anything new, or different.  But that's what writers do--we write.  Some of us will write to comfort others, some of us will write in a feeble attempt to make sense of it all, some of us will write because we arrogantly believe we know why these things happen, some of us will write simply to try to process the thoughts and feelings we have.  Some people will be insensitive and say stupid things.  Some people will ignore it completely.

Many people will bring up the suffering in the book of Job, how he had everything taken away, as if that is somehow supposed to be a comfort.  When I first read Job in college, and learned that his suffering was a result of a bet between God and Satan, I didn't know what to think.  I still don't.  And Job never did learn the reason why he suffered; he only knew that he did.  If it was me, what would I think?  Probably something like, "Gee, thanks for having so much confidence in my faith, God, but don't you think you could have toned it down a bit?"

When tragedies happen that are caused by humans, it's easier to understand them.  We can blame sin, brokenness, sickness for weaving its way into the strands of our lives.  But when no person is to blame, then who can we blame?  Do we blame God?  Even asking that seems blasphemous.  But that is what I wondered, yesterday, when I cried at the reports that two elementary schools were hit.  That is what I wondered when I saw video and photo of the destruction.  That is what I wondered when I heard it was an F4 tornado with 200+ mph winds.

I was angry.  And I wondered why.  And I was reminded of a troubling verse in Isaiah, in which God's sovereignty is extended even to the bad things in this world.
  • KJV Isaiah 45:7 I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the LORD do all these things.
  • NIV Isaiah 45:7 I form the light and create darkness, I bring prosperity and create disaster; I, the LORD, do all these things.
  • NRS Isaiah 45:7 I form light and create darkness, I make weal and create woe; I the LORD do all these things
Evil.  Disaster.  Woe.  And God claims that they all come from Him.  

My friend Yaakov explained to me one time, that in context,  what is happening here is that God is explaining that there are not other, lesser gods for each activity. He is it.  On an exegetical level, I get that.  It is the superiority of the God of Israel to the gods of any surrounding nations.  On a level of having faith in a loving God, I have a very difficult time understanding it.  I want to run to the verses of peace and love and harmony and no tears and no sickness.  I want to just parrot that I trust in God's goodness, even when that trust falters.  

And yet, mixed in with the disturbing aspect of this verse, there are the good things:  God forming light.  God bringing peace, prosperity, or weal (well-being).  The good and the bad are mixed in together, mixed up together, coexisting.  

We can't answer why.  We can only grieve and weep and help, and let the goodness shine through, even though they may at first seem like tiny pinpricks of light in the darkness.  We can see the kingdom of heaven spreading through like yeast in dough, coming from unexpected places and people.  


It's days like this, when people of all faiths and no faith will come together to work for the good of humanity.

It's days like this when Republicans and Democrats will forget, for a moment, their disdain and hatred for one another's ideals, and seek to help others.

It's days like this, when differences are put aside, I see this partial verse from Galatians coming into play: "So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all".  

It's days like this, when all seems hopeless, that people give each other hope, that love for other human beings can be shown without regard to who they are, where they come from, what their status in life is.  

Perhaps, in this horrific event, we will see just who does exemplify the fruits of the spirit.  We will be able to identify who is following Jesus' command to love one another.  We will see God's goodness still.  

Monday, May 20, 2013

The Despised Ones

The other day I found myself added to a Facebook group called "The Despised Ones".  Intrigued, I asked what exactly it was, and Morgan Guyton responded with a post about how it began and what it was for.  It is a bloggers collective based on 1 Corinthians 1:28:  God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, [v. 29: so that no one might boast in the presence of God] and was precipitated by this statement by T.C. Moore:

There’s a peculiar tribe of radicals discovering they are not alone. They come from all different traditions and expressions of the church, but they share many common characteristics:

Their message is centered on Jesus the Messiah; their definition of power is the cruciform love of God revealed on the Cross; they proclaim Jesus Lord and King, not Caesar; they won’t bow down to nationalistic idolatry, nor will they be co-opted by any of the powers that be; their Gospel is good news to those on the margins; they live in authentic community in eschatological hope; they embody the life of the age to come; they live as pilgrims and sojourners in this world, because God is building a new city among them; they live in solidarity with the hurting, and celebrate the new covenant with joy; God is using them to renew all things.

They are Jesus-disciples, and they are turning the world upside-down.

I have never really given much thought to 1 Corinthians 1:28, but since I am now a part of this blogging collective, I think I'd better think about it.  

When I read both the verse and Moore's words, something resonated in me, but in a mixed-up kind of way.  I loved the characteristics that Moore described, and feel as if it is those characteristics that I have been exploring for the last few years.  But the description of "despised" made me uncomfortable.  I mean, really, who wants to think of herself as someone despised by others?  For a people-pleaser such as myself, being despised doesn't sit too well with me.

But then I read more of Morgan's explanation:

If we take Paul’s statement at face value without making a moralistic judgment about the ἐξουθενημένους, then what Paul is saying literally is this: “Therefore if you have disputes about daily life, then let the despised ones in your church be the judges.” Recall that 1 Corinthians is the book where Paul exclaims, “Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?” (1 Corinthians 1:20).

Now, generally, I come from a place of privilege:  I'm an educated, middle-class, heterosexual, white female.  Being despised--or lowly--is not something I have experienced very much, although it has happened, in the church.  And in those instances, it was because I was a woman, and women were not allowed to be in positions of leadership.    When I think back to conversations I had about the topic of women in leadership and men's and women's roles, I now wonder, what if those in authority in those churches had read this verse?  What then would they say about women in leadership?  Would they deliberately ask the people who are being oppressed and marginalized for their opinions, thoughts, input?  Who do I overlook in the church and in life?

This assessing of what verses like this, or Philippians 2 about humility means, is something that we need to do on a regular basis.  Too often, we think we understand a portion of scripture and move on to the next, never revisiting it to see if there is more to be gleaned. 

Being despised, being lowly, living with humility are probably some of the most difficult things that Christians will face, because they are the exact opposite of what "the world" craves.  The world loves those who are loved, not those who are despised.  The world admires those who make their way to the top, not those who are at the bottom.  The world has a me-first attitude, not one of putting others first.  We see it everywhere, and it is something that even we Christians find ourselves participating in.  

And so, it is a good reminder.  I am despised, but that's ok.  It is not in myself that I should boast about anything I do, but in God.  It is a way to remember that everything I do, everything I live for, should be for Jesus.  And when I think of it that way, I feel a sense of joy welling up inside me, something that tells me that following him is worth being despised, that following him is a better way than the ways of the world in which I live.  And yes, I will fail at times.  I will sometimes not be strong or courageous enough to do what is right, to follow what Jesus calls me to do.  But being despised and practicing humility can teach us to put ourselves all on a level playing field.  Not one of us is better than another.  We are all fighting not to be at the top, but to be at the bottom.  

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Everyone Has a Past, But More Importanly, Everyone Has a Future

I was thinking recently about the story in John 8 about the woman caught in adultery.

 2 Early in the morning he came again to the temple. All the people came to him and he sat down and began to teach them.  3 The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery; and making her stand before all of them,  4 they said to him, "Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery.  5 Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?"  6 They said this to test him, so that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground.  7 When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, "Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her."  8 And once again he bent down and wrote on the ground.  9 When they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the elders; and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him.  10 Jesus straightened up and said to her, "Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?"  11 She said, "No one, sir." And Jesus said, "Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again."  --John 8:2-11  

This is a well-known story in the New Testament.  Many people love it because it exemplifies Jesus' grace, shows us that nobody is without sin, and makes us wonder what Jesus is writing in the sand.  

In the Bible, adultery is sex between a man and a married woman--this is different from our definition of adultery today.  Today, we just think of it as sex with someone who is not the person's spouse.  But in the Bible, since multiple wives and concubines were normal for men to have, it's not adultery for a married man to sleep with someone who wasn't his wife (unless she was someone else's wife; then it would be adultery).  The concept of biblical adultery all depends on the woman's marital status.  There are a couple of different penalties for adultery:  a woman who is betrothed and commits adultery the penalty is stoning, and the same goes for the man (Deuteronomy 22:23-24).  A woman who is married and commits adultery would face the penalty of strangulation (this is according to the Mishnah; it is not in the Bible itself.  For further info, please see this article).

Women were essentially property.  When we see the commandment to not commit adultery, we also see in the commandment about coveting that it is forbidden to covet the neighbor's wife.  Coveting the neighbor's sister isn't prohibited.  Coveting the neighbor's daughter isn't prohibited.  Coveting the neighbor's wife is.  (See Exodus 20:14, 17).  

Now that we see those penalties, we now more about the story in John.  This woman was going to be stoned, so therefore, she must have been betrothed to a man, but not yet married to him.  So why was she in this situation?  Was she going to be one of a number of wives to some man who saw it only as a business deal?  Who was the man with whom she was caught?  Was it some kind of set-up?  There are so many unanswered questions.  

I wonder, also, if Jesus' hesitation to condemn this engaged woman had to do with another woman he knew about, another woman who had likely been thought to have committed adultery while engaged, another woman who faced possible divorce from her husband.

Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.  Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.--Matthew 1:18-19  

In condemning this woman, would Jesus have also been passing judgment on his own mother?  What did he know of the circumstances of his birth?  Had growing up with questionable origins made him more sensitive to the plight of others?  Had the rumors of his parentage been known to the people who brought him this woman?  Were they testing him, not only to see what he would do regarding punishment, but also regarding the commandment to honor his mother and father?

I also wondered, "what happened next?"  Even though Jesus refused to condemn her, and everyone else had walked away, how was she treated by them after this?  Jesus told her to go and to not sin again.  Let's assume that's what happened.  Let's assume she repented and became a new person.   Did everyone forget about it?  Or was she branded "that woman", ignored, shamed, and treated badly because of one bad decision in her life?  What happened to her husband?  Did he forgive her or did he divorce her?

Was she able to move on with her life, somehow?  Or did this incident rear its ugly head again, maybe even years later?  Was it distorted and exaggerated, made out to be more than it was?  

We just don't know.

But I think, what we can learn from this story, is that when we hear or read about someone's failure, someone's sin, is to be quiet for a time.  Jesus took his time thinking about the situation while everyone else waited to hear what he had to say.  While I think it is an example of Jesus' teaching in the sermon on the mount about not noticing the log in our own eyes when we see the speck in another's eyes (Matthew 7:3-5).   I think it's also an example to realize that in our own lives, there are people we love who may have been in the same situation that we now condemn.  Would we be willing to condemn those closest to us?  Probably not.  When it's personal, we easily come up with grace.  

Jesus loved his mom.  He wouldn't have wanted to see her condemned to death by stoning.  He knew that she went on to be married to Joseph and to raise him and his siblings.  He knew that she had a new life despite the scandal and gossip that must have come along with how he was conceived.  And, today, we think highly of her.  We read the "Magnificat" and think it is a beautiful piece of poetry.  We read where she says "Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word." (Luke 1:38) and wonder if our own hearts are so open to fully submit to God.

None of us today think badly of Mary, though I suspect we would've been skeptical of her claims then.  None of us today think we would have stoned the woman caught in adultery, but I bet many of us would have been in that group.  We stone people today with our words, with our actions, with how we treat them.  

Jesus looked at the woman caught in adultery as someone who had a future ahead of her, not someone who was going to be defined by her past or even her present.

Shouldn't we do the same for people?

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Love God With All Your Soul

This is the third in a series about the commandments to love.  The others are:

When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together,  and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him.   "Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?"   He said to him, "'You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.'   This is the greatest and first commandment.   And a second is like it: 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.'   On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets."  --Matthew 22:34-40

I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another." --John 13:34-35

We talk about the soul a lot.  We talk about saved souls, unsaved souls, someone who was "a good soul".  I've even been told I have an "old soul".  But what is a soul, anyway?  For many of us, the idea of a "soul" is that of something separate from us, something disembodied, something almost ghostlike, floating up to Heaven when we die.

But is that really the image of "soul" that we get from the Bible?

If we look back to the Hebrew Scriptures first, we see the word nefesh (among others, such as neshama and ruach, but we're just looking at nefesh here):

vp,n< n.f. soul, living being, life, self, person, desire, appetite, emotion, and passion -- 1. = that which breathesthe breathing substance or being =yuch,, anima, the soulthe inner being of man  (From BibleWorks)

As always, when it comes to anything to do with the Hebrew Scriptures or language, I consulted my friend Yaakov, an Orthodox Jew, for insight.  He told me that nefesh is the most basic form of the soul that gives the body life and represents the will as well, explaining that if you see the phrase "if you so desire", in Hebrew it reads "im yesh es nafshecha", literally meaning "if it is to your nefesh (will/desire)"

Let's take a look at Genesis 2:7:
"then the LORD God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being."

I love the translation that Yaakov gave me of this verse.  When God breathed into the nostrils, it's like saying "he blew into his nose his spirit"; "he blew into his nose a neshama of life".  The word at the end of the verse, that is here translated as "living being", has to do with the word nefesh that we are looking at:  linefesh chaya.

So, it looks like what we have here is that God blows a neshama into us through our noses and we become a living nefesh.  God breathes his spirit into us and we become a living soul.  Without that breath from God, what is humankind?
This nefesh that humankind becomes with the breath of God is what gives us life.  If this is what animates our bodies and represents our will, then loving God with our soul means loving God with all of who we are, not just with part of who we are.  The soul is not a part of us; it is integral to our identity.  It's not something that we can break off and see as separate; we can't think of our soul as something that is only a part of who we are.

And so, when we ask ourselves, how do we love God with all of our soul, perhaps we should be asking instead
  • How do I love God with all that I am?  
  • How do I love God with what defines my identity?
  • How do I love God with all that I desire or will?
  • How do I love God with all that he created me to be?
There's a lot more depth to those questions.  They are not quickly or easily answered.  But the one idea that stands out to me is that the soul is a gift from God, and it is with that gift that we must love him back.  It is the gift of life, and in loving God with our soul, we are loving God with all of our life.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Celebration of Discipline: An Experiment in Fasting

This was originally supposed to be part of a series at Soul Munchies.  Due to SM being on hiatus, it's been moved here.

Last month I told you about how I felt as if I failed at the spiritual discipline of prayer.  If I thought I failed then, I failed even worse this past month, with the spiritual discipline of fasting.  I did not fast even once.

The thing is, I don't eat a lot to begin with, so it actually should have been pretty easy.  My husband joked that I pretty much fast on a regular basis anyway.  (Please note:  I do not have any eating disorders or anything like that, I am just generally a very small person with a small appetite.  Except when it comes to certain foods, like a good steak.  Then I just want to keep eating and eating and eating).

When I first read Celebration of Discipline in seminary a number of years ago, I wrote this at the end of the fasting chapter:

"Fasting sounds interesting, but if I try it out of curiosity, am I really doing it for God or for myself?"  I worried about doing it and someone asking me why I wasn't eating, and proudly explaining to them that I was fasting, and then hearing "And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward." (Matthew 6:16).  

That is something that I wondered again as I read the chapter.  Foster makes a good case for fasting as a discipline.  He writes that Jesus' "teaching on fasting is directly in the context of his teaching on giving and praying.  It is as if there is an almost unconscious assumption that giving, praying, and fasting are all part of Christian devotion.  We have no more reason to exclude fasting from the teaching than we do giving or praying" (52).

He is clear throughout the chapter that fasting is about God.  It is to center on God and spiritual purposes, that it is a reminder that "we are sustained 'by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God'" and that through fasting, we are "not so much abstaining from food as we are feasting on the word of God" (55).

When I read the chapter a month ago and started thinking about when to fast, I didn't know what to do.  I didn't know if it would be from food, as is traditional, or something else that consumes me, like Facebook or Twitter.  I asked a Jewish friend of mine if there were any fast days coming up within the month, thinking that if there was, I would pick that day, because at least I'd know other people were also fasting then.  There were not any days, unfortunately.

And then I read something else that struck me.  In The Good and Beautiful Community by James Bryan Smith, in the chapter on "The Christ-Centered Community", he wrote about Richard Foster and this very book and said,  "Not long after its initial success, Richard was troubled by something: individuals, not groups, were using the book in isolation, with the aim of personal spiritual growth."

That's exactly what I have been doing.  I've been going through it by myself , not with any kind of community.  It made me see the importance of doing things as a community, as my Jewish friends do on their fast days.  They know that no matter where they are, everyone else is fasting too.  There's a subtle support in that, I think.  They know they are not the only one feeling it when their stomachs are rumbling and hurting.  Thousands of others are, too.

We Christians are great at feasting.  I've eaten countless meals at church: catered meals, potlucks, cookouts, weekly meals, semi-annual meals, etc.  But I have never been in a church that has said, "hey, let's fast today."  It's just not a part of what we do, unless we count giving up something for Lent, which is still very optional and very individualistic.  

What would it look like, then, for a group of Christians to take on a fast day, together?  What would we learn from it?  How would we do it?  I think that it would be a difficult endeavor for a couple of reasons:  we are unfamiliar with the practice, and we love food.  I'd like to see how it would work, though.  Have you ever done some kind of fast with your church or small group?  Please tell me about it!

Monday, May 13, 2013

The Church & Mental Illness

There's been a lot of discussion lately about the topic of mental illness and what the church needs to do and can do.  Adrian Warnock has written extensively about it lately, and asked me to write a post with my thoughts.

Like many others, I don't think that the topic of mental illness has ever been addressed in a sermon.  Obviously, I don't remember every sermon I have ever heard, but I just don't think it has been a topic.  There are probably some good reasons for this, one being that there are some things pastors are not qualified to talk about.  If a person has little knowledge and no expertise in an area, it's better to let someone else do the educating.

I remember the church I attended for the longest period of time as an adult had a counseling center.  This was run by an actual psychologist (if I remember correctly), not a pastor who'd just had a counseling class or two in seminary.  While I never thought much about it while I was there, what this told me is that this particular church understood the need for mental health services and understood that there are people specifically trained to provide those services.

In the church I currently attend, there's a pastor who has a degree/background in marriage/family counseling, and while he will offer pastoral care, if it is anything serious, he will refer people to professionals.

Unfortunately, in many churches, this may not be the case.  Too often, mental health issues are seen as only spiritual problems that will go away if one just prays hard enough.  

I don't know why it is so difficult to see mental illness as an illness.  My friend Adrienne, who has a young son who has had numerous problems with mental illness, explained one time that it's so easy for us to understand and seek treatment for any other illness.  We understand when we are physically sick.  We take medications.  We have surgeries.  The physical aspect of our bodies is seen as something that can be broken and can be treated.  Why then, she asked, do we not think the same thing can happen to our brains?

That put it in perspective for me.  Our brains are as much of a part of our bodies as anything else, and if something can go wrong physically, something can also go wrong mentally.  

I would encourage anyone reading this to look at it like that.  It will go a long way in understanding the suffering a person may be experiencing, and if we encourage people to seek treatment for physical illnesses, we must encourage them to seek treatment for mental illnesses as well.  

Thursday, May 09, 2013

MOPS Devotional: "Now What?"

Today is the last day of MOPS for the year.  I know that I've enjoyed getting to know many of you since I started coming to MOPS right after I moved here, just over a year ago.

Endings are bittersweet.  We feel somewhat sad when something ends, partly because we've enjoyed it and partly because it is something that has filled our schedule and we are left wondering "now what?"  Now what will we do on Thursday mornings.  Now what will we do with the kids when school is out.

"Now what" is how countless people must have felt:
  • When Adam & Eve left the garden, they must've thought, "now what?"
  • When Noah & his family were on the ark, they must've thought, "now what?"
  • When the Israelites crossed the Red Sea and were free from the Egyptians, they must've thought, "now what?"
  • When Israel was exiled, and when they were able to return to their land, they must've thought, "now what?"
  • When Jesus was dead, lying in the tomb, the disciples must've thought, "now what?"
  • And when Jesus was raised from the dead, but then left again, people must've thought, "now what?"
Do you see the theme?

No matter how normal, ordinary, or average our everyday life is, we are all going to be faced with the question "now what?"

A lot of times, we like to think of the Bible as our go-to answer book.  We look up in a topical index whatever problem we're facing and are given a verse or two to read and assume that is supposed to be the answer to our problem.

But that kind of makes the Bible fall flat, I think.

Instead of looking at it as a place to look up the answers, rather, we should look at it as a place to see the experiences of so many people before us who struggled, who feared, who doubted, who had questions, who lived ordinary lives.  People who also have asked, "now what?"

We can look to it and realize that often, there are not final answers for us, and even if we do get answers, they are not always the same for everyone, and they take a lot of time to come.  And while there are promises in the Bible, they are not exact.  It doesn't tell us exactly what to do with every single step we take in our lives.   For example, when I was in the process of moving here, I had to wonder, "now what?"  God didn't tell me exactly what He wanted me to do here.  He didn't tell me which church I would attend, if I would get a job, or what.  But I firmly believe that opportunities that have opened up--over time--are due to His leading and prompting.   And even though I can't look to the Bible to tell me exactly what I should do, I can look to it for some beautiful and life-giving promises and guidance:

I think of Jesus' words at the end of the gospel of Matthew, assuring people of his presence:  "And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age." (Mt 28:20).  Or Colossians 3:15, in which Paul encourages us to "let the peace of Christ rule in [our] hearts".  Or from the gospel according to John when Jesus explains that even though he is leaving, the "Advocate", the Holy Spirit, is being sent to be with us forever.  And then when Paul explains in Galatians that we will know who has that Holy Spirit guiding his or her life because of the fruit produced:  love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

Too often, we want everything in our lives planned out.  We want lists made and we want to check things off of those lists.

But, as we learned a couple of weeks ago, life gets interrupted.

And when that happens, we can go crazy, or we can still ourselves, quiet ourselves, and ask God, "now what?"  And I believe that God will lead us, even if we can't see where we are going or how all the pieces of our lives may fit together.  

So, as we break for MOPS until next year, I encourage you to ask yourselves, "now what?" regarding your faith.  Is there something you need to surrender to God?  Is there a practice such as prayer or meditation or Bible reading that you want to put into your life?  It's not going to be the same for everyone here.  But it is a question we all can ask, and we all can find an answer to--even if that answer isn't explicitly in the Bible.  It's there through the Spirit, and there through the Spirit working through others. 
I'm going to leave you with more of Paul's words in his letter to the Colossians, also from chapter 3, in order to encourage you in seeking God's guidance:

1 So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.  2 Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth,  3 for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.  4 When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory.  5 Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry).  6 On account of these the wrath of God is coming on those who are disobedient.  7 These are the ways you also once followed, when you were living that life.  8 But now you must get rid of all such things-- anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language from your mouth.  9 Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices  10 and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator.  11 In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!  12 As God's chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.  13 Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.  14 Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.  15 And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful.  (Colossians 3:1-15)